Memo to Obama: a Europe policy 3.0

A Wess Mitchell
11 November 2008

To: The President of the United States 

From: A Wess Mitchell

Subject: America's Europe Policy, Version 3.0

Mr President,

You will inherit a policy agenda for Europe that was conceived twenty years ago for a world that no longer exists. That agenda was built on three bedrock assumptions, all of which were then refreshingly new:

A Wess Mitchell is co-founder and director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington,DC-based foreign-policy institute

Also in openDemocracy:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008) * that Russia was an enervated, status-quo power

* that Europe was unifying into an Atlanticist whole

* that American global - and therefore regional - power was virtually inexhaustible.

Working from these assumptions, your post-cold-war predecessors embarked upon one of the most successfully expansionist courses in the history of United States foreign policy, advancing the western ideological and institutional ambit by a space of half a million square miles in less than two decades.

Collectively, the family of policies that made this success possible could be called "Europe Policy 2.0." Where American cold-war strategy (Europe Policy 1.0) had been largely defensive, working to staunch Russian expansion through cautious counter-force, Version 2.0 switched to the geopolitical offensive, methodically absorbing the lands that had formerly composed the Soviet Union's western power-base.

Each strategy was a brilliant success in its day. The reason they worked is that the policies they fielded corresponded to deeper global power realities:

* for containment - the restrictive environment of bipolarity, with its furrowed geopolitical map and hair-trigger standoffs

* for expansion - the permissive strategic environment of unipolarity, with its cooperative centre and untamed periphery.

Neither structural reality now applies. You will be the first American leader to confront the full-blown psychological reality of multipolarity. In Europe, the new global power arrangement is giving rise to the third great geopolitical re-configuration of the Euro-Atlantic space since 1945. This new landscape is marked by three mega-trends:

Also in openDemocracy on Europe and the world:

Dieter Helm, "Russia, Germany and European energy policy" (14 December 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's higher ground" (22 October 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Aviel Roshwald, "Nato, the west and Russia: from peril to progress" (23 September 2008)

* a resurgent Russia

* a geopolitically-polygamous Europe

* an isolated, over-extended America.

The vast majority of recommendations on offer for US policy in Europe discount the importance or durability of these changes and counsel a continuation of Europe Policy 2.0. An intrepid but irrelevant few swing in the opposite direction, overestimating the new trend lines' significance and arguing for a down-scaling of US regional commitments to devote scarce resources to more pressing existential challenges elsewhere.

You should do neither. Instead, the time has come to devise a fundamentally new approach to Europe - one that matches reduced power means to more modest and intelligent policy ends. America needs a Europe Policy 3.0. Rather than expansion or retrenchment, the current geopolitical constellation calls for a strategy of consolidation - a sustained effort at managing the effects of the disintegrative trends listed above and "locking-in" the Euro-Atlantic order established between 1989 and 2007. In the immediate future, this means:

* buttressing exposed eastern regions where old security dilemmas have reawakened

* husbanding once-vibrant political relationships through re-synchronisation of fundamental interests

* erecting counterpoises to creeping non-Atlanticist geopolitical influences.

Together, these changes will require nothing short of a wholesale reorganisation of American diplomatic and military resources in the Euro-Atlantic space.

It is worth the effort.

1. Buttress Europe's eastern flank

The single greatest challenge you will face in Europe over the next four years is the sharpened security dilemma that has come to exist along the EU's eastern border. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia, Moscow has unveiled a doctrine for regional intervention, consolidated its politico-energy position in central Asia, issued threats to Nato member-states, and attempted to assume the status of sole arbiter to the frozen conflict in Transnistria. Some experts believe Moscow could precipitate a major crisis in Ukraine within your first two years in office.

The outgoing administration was unable to frame a meaningful response to these moves. American impotence was a source of discomfort for Nato's newest and most exposed eastern member-states. The geopolitical status of these new allies can be summed up as that of a group of small and mid-sized powers wedged between a 21st-century power to the west and a 19th-century power to the east and relying for their security on a 20th-century power beyond the horizon.

Assuaging their heightened sense of vulnerability should be your highest priority in Europe. Your administration should move swiftly and confidently to shore up Europe's eastern flank and restore trust in the full faith and credit of American security underwriting. Two steps are needed here.

2. Do not expand Nato to the east

The need to extend offers of Nato membership to Georgia and Ukraine has become orthodoxy in the US foreign-policy establishment. In reality, this goal will for the foreseeable future remain unachievable. Opposition to expanding the alliance is deeply entrenched in Berlin, Paris and (though often overlooked) Ankara. American persistence only deepens the perception of US powerlessness and crisis in Nato at a moment when these perceptions desperately need to be countered.

While continuing to support the goal of stability and democracy in Ukraine and Georgia in principle, your administration should support an "EU membership first" strategy for these and other states in the new eastern arc of crisis. To the extent that scarce US political capital is invested in enlarging Nato, it should be to the north rather than the east. Both Finland and Sweden have become more interested in joining Nato since the South Ossetian war. Bringing them in could help to shore up Nato's northeastern flank, reducing the sense of strategic exposure among the Baltic states and uniting the alliance around a practical and achievable goal without bringing us into immediate confrontation at a moment when we cannot sustain it.

3. Strengthen the US military presence in central Europe

While halting the rush to absorb Ukraine and Georgia, a convincing demonstration of US strength must be made in the eastern member-states of Nato, lest they - and Moscow - mistake deceleration on enlargement as a sign of retreat. At present, the combined western military presence in central Europe consists of a handful of US troops at lily-pad bases in the Black Sea and four rotating Nato F-16s patrolling Baltic airspace. This security-blanket needs to be thickened - not just rhetorically but visibly. The outgoing administration took a positive step in this direction by advocating the creation of a new territorial Rapid Reaction Force. You should go further by initiating talks within Nato for the transfer of select military installations from their current locations in western Europe to new sites further east. There was already a strong case for shifting some assets on logistical grounds before the Georgia crisis, and there is an even stronger case for doing so on geopolitical grounds now.

4. Husband once-vibrant political relationships

Received wisdom correctly holds that America's bilateral relationships in Europe are in disarray. In the span of barely eight years, the sixty-year-old foundation of Atlanticist unity has sustained deep erosion. There are invaluable lessons to be learned from recent experiences about how intra-alliance politics function under conditions of multipolarity - lessons that could easily be forgotten in the rush to confront challenges further afield. Your administration will need to engage in the tedious spadework of mending fences with estranged allies. These fall into two distinct categories - the mostly small and eastern states that have supported US policies but failed to receive compensation and the mostly large and western European states that did not stand with us but who we cannot afford to alienate. Each group is worth retaining, but requires a subtly different kind of attention.

5. Reward disappointed Atlanticists

The first focus of attention should be the countries of the ill-starred "new" Europe - e.g., the Poles and Czechs, alongside older allies such as the British and Dutch - who supported America in Iraq but have little to show in return. In collaboration with Congress, you should devise a package of strategic perks aimed at retaining their goodwill. For the western Europeans, this could include enhanced military technology sharing and presidential review of longstanding bilateral grievances in US trade policy. For the central Europeans, it could include finalising the expansion of the US visa-waiver programme and creating a new fund within the Foreign Military Funding programme specifically earmarked for ex-Warsaw Pact militaries. In both cases, the goal should be long-term - i.e., not enlisting help for the next Iraq-style adventure, but rather constructing a permanent, institutionally-embedded Atlanticist cadre around which to build a pro-US consensus in EU decision-making.

6. Seek mutually-beneficial tradeoffs with core EU states

Your administration should also think creatively about how to re-synchronise US policy with the large, increasingly non-Atlanticist powers at the EU's core. At present, the United States and Germany are each engaged in activities that the other doesn't like, that are arguably not in their own interests, and that are contributing to the de-stabilisation of the wider alliance: the US push for Georgian/Ukrainian MAP and German participation in Russian energy deals that bypass eastern EU member-states. Your administration should seek a bargain: softening our stance on MAP in exchange for Berlin rethinking Nordstream. To sweeten the deal, we should be willing to meet Germany halfway on missile-defence (embedding the bilateral pacts with Poland and the Czech Republic more firmly within a wider Nato-wide system). While doing these things is already good for America, it should be linked as far as possible to concessions from Germany.

7. Erect counterpoises to creeping non-Atlanticist geopolitical influences

The organising problem in Europe for coming generations of US statesmen is likely to be European geopolitical dependency on Russia. In recent years, Moscow has used what a recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations called "coercive bilateralism" to establish permanent pathways of dependency that will enable Moscow to either block the emergence of a unified European geopolitical actor altogether or, to the extent that such an actor does congeal, have so many threads in the European Union rug as to be able to pull it out from under EU policies that harm Russian interests. Your administration should devise a long-term strategy for countering this influence. A combination of direct and indirect tactics are needed.

8. Remove US policy obstacles to a viable southern energy corridor

Diversification of energy supply is a longstanding US policy priority in Europe. The problem is that it works at cross-purposes with another top US policy priority: the effort to diplomatically and economically isolate the Republic of Iran. The US-backed Nabucco pipeline project could help lessen European dependency on Gazprom - and with it, the danger of European states being held hostage to Russian geopolitical machinations. But to work, Nabucco needs to carry Iranian gas, which Washington currently opposes. It is not difficult to see how this circle could be squared. The Europeans need non-Russian gas and America needs carrots to lure Tehran away from producing nuclear weapons. Your administration should work with Congress to include a relaxation of US opposition to European investment in the Iranian energy sector as part of the package of incentives for the next round of nuclear talks with Tehran. It's a sweeter enticement than any other currently on offer and, if successful, could kill two birds with one stone.

9. Encourage a deepening of German-Polish relations

While striking directly at the fountainhead of Russian geopolitical influence in Europe - energy dependency - you should also approach the problem indirectly, by encouraging EU member-states to prioritise their bilateral ties with one another over links to Moscow. The main thrust of this effort should be directed at Germany and Poland. The relationship between Europe's largest western and largest eastern power is arguably as important to the overall stability of Europe today as the Franco-German relationship was in the 1950s. The current alignment of moderate governments in both countries, with Schröder-ite Russophiles and Kaczynski-ite Germophobes consigned to the backbenches, offers a rare opportunity to deepen ties. Your administration should encourage the Angela Merkel government to reiterate its offer of an overland spur from the Nordstream pipeline into Poland - only this time, with the added inducement of German/EU commission funding. On the Polish side, the United States should reinforce the growing tendency to seek leadership roles alongside western member-states in EU decision-making councils. Our comfort-level with the EU should increase in proportion to the strength of Polish and other Atlanticist voices within its structures.


In short, your administration should conduct a comprehensive review of American strategic priorities in Europe. We can no longer leave US policy inputs on autopilot and expect European policy outputs - on Iran, on Afghanistan, on energy security - to improve. We cannot continue the headlong geopolitical expansion that brought us to the gates of Tblisi and Kiev, but we also cannot precipitously retract. A new playbook is needed. Where Europe Policy 1.0 saw the European geopolitical space as a besieged outpost and Version 2.0 saw it as combination launch-pad for freedom and global helpmeet, a Europe Policy 3.0 would see it as America's vital geopolitical "base" in world politics - an over-used, under-cultivated base that, in the multipolar world ahead, will require careful maintenance to retain.

Where the leitmotif of American strategy under bipolarity was containment ("patient, firm, and vigilant") and the theme under unipolarity was expansion (heady, unimpeded, and slack), the keynote of our Europe policy under multipolarity must be consolidation: flexible, steady and balanced.

Make that your watchword, Mr Obama, and you will leave better than you found.

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